Friday, April 04, 2008

The Boatman and an American Dream?

* * * * * * *

I do not do much to pamper myself, the one thing I do, is get a manicure at least once a month. I think I have ugly fingers, longer nails somehow make me feel better about them. I suppose due to the fact that longer nails...give me the perception of having long fingers.

I like long slender fingers, they have a grace about them. One of my old clients, Charlie Mae, age 94, has the most beautiful hands I have ever seen. Her hands are narrow, and such long slender fingers. With the palest hint of pearly pink tinting her perfectly oval shaped nail beds, against the milk chocolate of her skin, they are simply lovely.

If one only saw her hands, one would not know her age. The skin though somewhat wrinkled is flawless, and satiny soft.

I remember the first time we met, I could not seem to take my eyes from her hands. As we sat and talked, as I listened to the stories of her life, these graceful wings of hers seemed to float through the air when she would use them to illustrate a point. I asked her if she played the piano. She did, or had, at 94 living in her small widow's apartment, she has no room for a piano. I told her how beautiful her hands were. As I complimented them, I could not resist ever so gently laying my fingertips against the back of her hand, they had the fragility of a birds wing as well. She humbly acknowledged the compliment, replying to me, "They used to be beautiful." I told her they still were.

But I digress, that is not what this entry is about.

* * * * * * *

"When you came to this country, did you speak English?"

"No, not very well."

"How did that feel?'

"I felt stupid, I spoke some English, but it was English with Filipino accent."

Alec laughed, "No one here could understand my English. English with Vietnamese-Filipino accent!"

"But you're Vietnamese. Why did you have a Filipino accent?"

"When I left Vietnam, I went to the Philippines first, my English teacher was Filipino."

"How did you end up in the Philippines?"

"Was the first place I went. Long, long story."

My question to Alec, my manicurist, has taken me weeks to ask. His English is quite good, the last time I saw him, we too spoke of language, and television. Alec told me then, that he uses the English captioning function on his television set to improve his English, to broaden his vocabulary. After he told me this, I recall trying the French subtitle function on a DVD. It didn't help me learn to speak French, nor read it for that matter. I think one has to know some of the language first, or at least one needs to do it often to eventually pick up the correct written words to go along with the spoken. Alec does it daily, at the end of his work day, he returns home and turns on the history channel, with captions of course.

But, again I have digressed.

* * * * * * *

"Was the first place I went. Long, long story."

I didn't say anything, I just waited, hoping he would feel comfortable enough to tell me his story.

I was lucky, he did.

"You know...the Vietnam War? Yes?"

I nodded.

"My father, he work for the Americans. The army. He was trained to infiltrate communist North find what they were doing, and report to the American Army."

At this, Alec lifted his hand to his mouth, as if he were speaking in a radio.

"We must move often, the 9 of us, 7 children, 2 adults, family of 9, you see?"

Again I nodded.

"He must move us, each time he tell them where to bomb."

I had images from Apocalypse Now running through my brain at his words. I cannot truly imagine his life as a youngster. I thought of the families of Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, and more, families, children all over the world experiencing such a life...

We have no clue...the soldiers do, the contractors, the journalists, but the average American, we don't...we think we do...but we can't. We haven't lived it.

I wanted to ask him why the family went with his father on his forays each time, but I didn't. I did wonder, did it make the father a more authentic seeming spy, to be a family man, moving his family from village to village as he moved into enemy territory?

Alec continued with his story. After the war, his family had to hide, or the North Vietnamese would kill his father. "When we lost, he must go in hiding, they know him. The Communists know him, know he work for the Americans, they kill him, if they find him."

So Alec's family moved into the forest to live. "Very hard life this. There are only two seasons in Vietnam, wet season, and dry season. You understand? Rice, vegetables only grow in wet? We are only able to grow things in wet season. In dry season, we are hungry. My mother, to feed the 7 children, she go even hungrier." (With this statement Alec gestured toward his stomach as if it were deeply sunken). "At age 15 I tell my father, I cannot live in Vietnam any longer. I do not want to live like that. I do not want to be a farmer, I do not want to be hungry. He tell me he find escape for me."


"He find me a boat, the boat very small, 23 feet by 5 feet, one motor. Very small, very slow, we sail. After two days I look back, I still see the land, I still see Vietnam. Very disheartening. There were 31 of us...on the boat. We sailed very rough seas, a long time, we run out of food, we run out of water, I must drink my own urine. The water too salty, the ocean, yes? So must drink my own urine. Then I feel it, my body shriveled, my mouth crack. Ten people die, only 21 of us left when a Philippine fishing boat find us. Only 21."

He did not tell me more, he looked so sad, I did not have the heart to ask for more details.

I did say, "You should write this down, your story is an important one. Americans, we are so insulated, and have forgotten stories such as yours.

"No, I cannot, my vocabulary not big enough."

*The story has been told...and...forgotten*

"In school, in Philippines, my teacher, he tell me, write journal. So I did. My teacher he cried when he read. He read to the whole class, the whole school. They all very sad."

"Do you still have the journal?"

"No, the school, they keep it."

"I was a pharmacy student, when I come here to U.S. in Philadelphia. I study so much math, algebra calculus, so much science."

"Now you are definitely speaking a foreign language!"

Alec smiled at me once again before saying, "All lost now."


"My mother, my family still in Vietnam. She said I should send money home, I should send enough to bring them all to America."

"I tell her, I am student full time, I work when not in school, but I have to buy food, I have to pay rent on apartment, I have to buy books, I have no extra money."

"I really didn't, I had no money."

"But, my mother, she say, you are in America, you make lots of money, you bring us there to be with you, it is safer."

"So, I leave school, I work two jobs, I send them money. In 1992 I buy a house for them. A big house in Philadelphia. An old, old house, in bad shape, I only paid $6000.00 for it. Good deal, in bad shape though. This is why you see Vietnamese work so hard, to not be poor any longer. I bring them all here to America....except for my sister. All are here now, except for my sister and my two nephews."

"Why did she not come?"

" brother-in-law...he is...crazy man. He what do you call it? The thing you pull with the teeth...the bomb?"


"Yes, grenade, he take a grenade to my family's house. He tell them he blow them all up if my sister not marry him. He did it! He pulled pin out. He dropped it though, it landed on his shoulder, hurt him bad. My sister, she feel guilty, so she stay, she marry him. Crazy man. I have never seen my nephews."

"Before I work in manicure shop, I work in dental lab, five years I worked in that lab. Making know?"

"Why did you stop working in the lab?"

"Boring, very boring."

Sweeping my hand to encompass the shop, I said, "And this? This is not boring?"

"No, there are people to talk to. The lab, very boring, I work alone, I sit in lab for five years, alone." Smiling, he said, "I like people."

The children of the owner are in the shop on most days, two beautiful little girls. One is 10, the other almost one. The one year old, picked this moment to toddle over to us in her walker.

Alec then said, "She is into everything. Second child, especially girls are more active than boys I think. Boys, they are easier. My two boys, so much quieter, not as active as her when they were small."

I agreed with him, "My son was much easier than my daughter."

I then asked about his boys.

"They are still in Philadelphia with their mother. They go to private school there. Make very good grades, the church, they pay for their uniforms, they pay for their books, my well there."

"Do you have the opportunity to visit them often?"

"No, their mother and I, we are divorced. Plus, I work 7 days a week. Do not go back very often. Long time since I have seen them."

My time with Alec was done. I left there with so many thoughts running through my mind, as they usually do when I leave there.

They do work hard. The 10 year old little girl, after school, she is at the shop, sometimes she is watching television, most often she is playing/sitting with her baby sister. She is also the receptionist, she answers the phone, gives out information. She is bilingual, as will be her sister. Perhaps she is trilingual, as Alec told me, when he was in school in Vietnam, they taught him French, not English. This confused me, but at the time, I did not know how to ask the questions that piece of information brought to mind, as I had thought the French were unwelcome all over Vietnam. (I'm gonna have to google that)

I thought of Alec's life, and that of his Vietnamese co-workers. I thought of the long hours they put in, of the endless 12 hour days. Days of spending their time pampering middle-class women and their daughters. I wondered about his co-workers' stories. I wondered about the young woman who I thought was new, but she isn't, she has been in San Francisco caring for her sick mother for the past year. Her mother is better now, so she came back here to the Midwest to work. Why here? Alec has told me most Vietnamese don't like it here in the northern states, it's too cold. They prefer the warmth of the south. He told me Atlanta has a very large conclave of Vietnamese living there. So why here? I could not seem to make him understand my question though. The only answer I received was, "The money is good."

I thought, the money is good? They work 361 days a year, unless they take time to care for an ill family member. The only days the shop is closed are the Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week, Christmas Day, and Easter Sunday.

There are days, have been so many days, when I have worried about money, worried about the future, my future, my children's future, our country's future...


I have no clue. My life is easy, so easy.

*Someone else's story*


Anonymous said...

It always amazes me what people live through and still carry on, doing normal things, dragging all their baggage along with them.

My mother and father lived through a world war. When I was a child, my father usually worked two jobs, sometimes three. I thought that was pretty normal. He worked so hard for his family and we didn't appreciate it, didn't understand. He wanted us to have it better than he did. He grew up in poverty with two alcoholic parents.

I digress.

It was a lovely story and yes, your friend should write it down.

S'mee said...

I had to stop several times to re-read. An amazing story.

It made me think when he said about speaking English with a Filipino accent.
I had a friend who taught me a few words of Dutch. He has a pronounced lisp, and I often wondered if I spoke Dutch with a lisp.

Sunny Delight said...

This man amazes me, actually they all do. They always seem so happy. When I heard his story, I was so full of questions, I found it so hard not to ask them, but I wanted to just listen to whatever he was willing to share. The memories are still raw I think, as he seemed to change the subject often.

But I am also glad I asked the first question, otherwise I would not have heard his story.

s'mee darlin' there is that chance you do....laughing.

Mary said...

Things like that, personally, makes me appreciate what I have, and how little I have had to do for it. Wow.